Late July 2018
My annual birthday backcountry fishing trip continues, this time with a trek into the upper La Garita Wilderness to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high along the Colorado Trail. The last couple of summers I have explored the stretches below and above the Eddiesville Trailhead that leads into the wilderness and had a blast catching lots of frisky browns and brook trout (See my July 2015 article on fishing Cochetopa Creek for more detail.). But what really intrigued me was when I bumped into another angler on one of those trips who claimed there were some big cutthroats higher in the wilderness area, beyond the first mile I had hiked up into. Now we all know that, present company and readership excepted, anglers are a mendacious lot, obscuring secret spots and misdirecting others to barren waters. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist as the tale had a ring of truth to it.
So I am on the road at 7 a.m. from my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake high above Gunnison, Colorado, for the 20-mile, hour-long drive to the Eddiesville Trailhead.
It rained last night, a godsend in the midst of this terrible drought, and at least the dust has settled on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that crosses several creeks on the way.
I pass an historic marker that reminds me I am on an old 1874 toll stage route that navigated over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide to the gold mines in the remote San Juan Mountains miles and miles to the west. Just when I think I am quite the adventurer the sign serves notice that I shrink in comparison to the hearty, tough souls who trail-blazed here years ago. It’s hard to comprehend how they built this road hundreds of miles by hand with mules and horses over this rough terrain. It was supposed to become a rail line, but was eclipsed by other equally daunting routes to the north and south.
It’s an endlessly scenic route, with the pyramid of Stewart Peak a prominent landmark looming in the distance and grand vistas revealed at every bend in the road.
However, when I make the first ford over Pauline Creek, I am aghast to find that it’s barely a trickle. Then I cross Perfecto, and find one of my little favorites is actually dry!! As I make my way up higher, Chavez Creek is almost dry, and while Nutras is gurgling along fairly well, Stewart Creek appears to have given up the ghost. Will Cochetopa have any water???
As soon as I arrive at the trailhead, I bail out of my SUV and hightail it to the nearest overlook… and breathe a sigh of relief. Cochetopa appears to have a decent flow, certainly enough to float a trout. So I pull on my waders and wading boots and set out on the hike up into the wilderness.
I intersect Cochetopa Creek after about 1.3 miles. It looks beautiful in the morning light, with perfect temperatures and just a light breeze greeting me. The fishing gods are smiling on me.
After a brief breather and a tremendous display of willpower to refrain from jumping in the creek and start fishing, I continue another mile into the wilderness, hoping I have ventured far enough to run into some cutthroats.
When the valley narrows, and trail veers away from the creek, I bushwhack down the slope to the creek and break out just below a sweet-looking little stretch where the water emerges from a willow tunnel and plunges over a small boulder into an alluring pool. I have seen a few grasshoppers in the meadow above, and when I check under rocks in the stream, I find them chock full of small mayflies and a few caddis nymph cases.
So I tie on a #16 Royal Coachman Trude, my old reliable, to imitate the hopper and a #18 Two-Bit Hooker as a fake mayfly nymph. I am using a nine-foot, five-weight rod I find performs well in these small creeks when a big fish hits and runs for snags under the banks. It will soon prove its mettle.
On my very first cast just below the boulder, a substantial fish flashes out and nails the trude. He proceeds to dive under the boulder and gyrates off the hook. Hmmm…looked suspiciously like a cutthroat, so maybe the guy wasn’t pulling my leg last summer. I flip another cast towards the boulder, and am fast onto another decent fish on the nymph. But this one is a brookie.
A couple of casts later, I score a double—two brookies, one on the dry and one on the dropper. Maybe I was only imagining that first one looked like a cutt. Anyway, that double signals what will be an epic century-club day, landing and releasing dozens and dozens of eager fish who act like they haven’t had a meal in weeks.
Fortunately, only a couple of pools later the truth emerges, and I am smiling. I land a beautiful cutt—not a big one, but hope springs eternal.
As I work upstream, I find the best bets are the pools gouged out by the rushing creek below blown out beaver dams. Indeed, the first one I come to I see a trout feeding.
I sneak into position, launch a long cast, and SLURP, he sucks in the trude. I can tell immediately from his flashy colors that it’s a good cutthroat. After a respectable to-and-fro battle, he slides into my net, pushing fourteen inches. A quick release is followed by a celebratory jig on the bank! Yahoo!!
The further I move upstream, the more the cutts predominate. Sometimes the stunning scenery detracts me from the mission at hand, but I snap out of the daze at the next run below another blown-out beaver pond. There I spy a good-sized trout sucking down mayflies in the quiet water below. On my first cast, he studiously ignores the dry, but on the next, can’t resist the nymph. The pool explodes as the finned critter realizes he’s been pranked with a fake. To my surprise and elation, it’s a nice brown trout—completing another La Garita slam (See my July 2018 articles on fishing Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness just over the Continental Divide a few miles.). It turns out to be the only brownie I catch all day, a bit odd since only a mile downstream the browns are plentiful.
It’s snack time, so I sit on the bank and soak some rays while taking in the picturesque setting. But not for long! I see on my GPS there are some big beaver ponds just ahead, so gird for battle. Beaver ponds are always an interesting, and often frustrating, challenge. I sneak up on the first one and peek over the dam. It’s a gorgeous big pond, with trout dimpling the surface in every direction. It doesn’t take long before I am fast onto a frisky little brook trout, followed by many others.
I continue to cast to risers, with long throws often required. But what fun, including a couple more doubles.
And as I emerge from behind the dam and skirt the shoreline, I spot some foot-long plus brookies cruising the shallows just below the creek inlet. I throw another long cast at a big boy in the crystal clear water, and he jets over to nail it before the little tykes can grab his meal. Another good tussle and quick release.
After my beaver pond delight, I continue upstream, catching more 12-13 inch cutts and brookies. When I finally glance at my watch, I’m surprised it’s almost four o’clock. Maybe time for another pool or two, but I can’t tarry long because it’s at least an hour back to the SUV and another to the mobile fish camp.
Around the next bend I find yet another blown-out beaver pond with a nice deep pool below. As I creep into casting position, I spook some small trout at the bottom end of the pool, so decide to loft a long cast over them before they tattle on me to their brethren.
And no sooner does the trude alight on the water than something big inhales it. The fish thrashes and churns the pool, but finally comes to the nest, a handsome 15-inch cutthroat, the biggest of the day.
The cutt quietly poses for a quick photo and soon is finning his way back to his hideaway. I am thankful once again for having brought a five-weight rod with enough backbone to throw long casts as well as handle the big fish in tight quarters filled with snags.
I can see some more pools upstream that cry out to be sampled, but resist the urge and head back to the trailhead. Fortunately it’s a fairly flat hike, perfect for a newly-anointed septuagenarian. Next year I’ll venture up even further into the wilderness to check it out those pools and beyond…assuming the old body holds up!